Working in the Logwoods: Photographs from Coastal North Carolina

I must have heard that phrase a million times when I was younger:  “we were working in the logwoods.” Old men would say it again and again when they remembered their younger days on the North Carolina coast. They talked plenty about farming and fishing and raising families, but they talked just as much about “working in the logwoods.”

A Civil Rights Milestone– Pamlico County, 1951

Today my Black History Month tour of eastern North Carolina’s civil rights history concludes with a look at Pamlico County and a historic civil rights lawsuit that was filed in 1951. Few people today remember this part of our history, but African American citizens in the little coastal village of Oriental filed one of the first lawsuits in the U.S. calling for black and white children to go to school together.

A World Built of Oyster Shells

Earlier this week, I wrote about the historic use of oyster shells for constructing roads on the North Carolina coast. But coastal people didn’t only use oyster shells for road building. Particularly before the Civil War, they also used oyster shells as an important source of lime. Burnt down in kilns, an incredible tonnage of oyster shells was used in making cement, mortar, bricks, wall plaster and whitewash.

The Oyster Shell Road

Children, a bicyclist and a toll keeper visiting at a toll station on the Shell Road between Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, N.C., circa 1900.  Oyster shells had been used for building and improving roads and cart paths since earliest colonial times, but the oyster boom that began on the North Carolina coast in the 1880s drastically increased the tonnage of shells available for road construction.

The Birth of a Plantation Empire: New Bern in 1800– Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 6

This is part 6 of my series on the diary that Susan Edwards Johnson wrote on the North Carolina coast in 1800 and 1801. At this point in her story, she's spending time at her cousin Frances Pollock Devereux's home in New Bern while her husband is overseeing the construction of gristmills and lumber mills on Peter Mallet's lands on the Black River. 

Women Reading– Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 5

After her husband returned to the Black River on Nov. 27, 1800, Susan Johnson remained in the town of New Bern, N.C., for nearly a month without him. She was the guest of her first cousin, the wealthy heiress Frances Pollock Devereux, and her husband, John Devereux. Susan’s diary describes many of the ways that she spent her time in New Bern during that month. Above all, Susan read. She read constantly. She read on her own, aloud to others and practically at all hours.

“Immigrants– We get the job done!” — Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 4

This is the 4th part of my look at the diary of Susan Edwards Johnson, a Connecticut woman that visited the North Carolina coast in 1800-1801. I found the diary at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, Conn. Susan Johnson remained in the town of New Bern, N.C., from the 24thof November until the 21stof December, … Continue reading “Immigrants– We get the job done!” — Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 4

Susan Johnson’s Diary– “On the Borders of the Great Dismal Swamp”

Last spring I visited the Connecticut Historical Society when I passed through Hartford, Conn. I was headed to my niece’s home in New Haven, but I couldn’t resist stopping for a few hours: the Society’s holdings include an extraordinary collection of early American historical manuscripts and I wanted to see if any of them might shed new light on coastal North Carolina.... I was only there for a day, but I found a real treasure that I would love to share here— a remarkable diary that was kept by a Connecticut woman when she stayed in coastal North Carolina in the very first decades after the American Revolution.

On Albemarle Sound– Runaway Slaves and the Sea

Welcome back to the Belle of Washington. We left Elizabeth City early this morning and came down the lovely waters of the Pasquotank River. Now we're passing the Little River and, up on its northern shore, the little hamlet of Nixonton. I’ll say more about Nixonton’s history in a second, but first I think this is a good time and place to talk about runaway slave advertisements because there are some especially interesting ones that refer to Nixonton.

Trent River, New Bern, ca. 1905— “One of the Finest Fish Markets in the World”

A fish market crowded with fishermen, fish buyers and fishmongers at the bottom of Middle Street, on the Trent River waterfront, New Bern, N.C., circa 1905. A pair of fishermen in a sail skiff are culling their catch, while a boy, obscured by an older man, probably his father or an uncle, poles what is probably a log-built skiff around them.

A Shad Camp, Neuse River, ca. 1890– The Men Singing as They Fish

A shad fisherman’s camp on the Lower Neuse River, possibly at or near James City, N.C., circa 1900. Fishermen constructed their huts out of cedar limbs or another supple hardwood and thatched them with saltmarsh cordgrass or black needlerush. Typically they bound them together with yucca fibers. These round huts with conical roofs were a spartan home away from home for shad fishermen and, occasionally, for their families.

Pitch Pines and Tar Burners: A 1792 Account

I recently found an historical account that I think might be the best description of tar making in North Carolina that I have ever read. An English merchant named Holles Bull Way wrote it in his travel diary when he visited coastal North Carolina in 1792. He did not publish those excerpts from his diary until 1809, though, when the article that I found appeared in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, Great Britain's first monthly scientific journal.

Benjamin Labaree’s Journal– A Yankee Teacher in Trenton, N.C., 1821-22

When he was 19 years old, in 1821, a young teacher named Benjamin Labaree left a small town in New Jersey, made his way to New York City and took passage on a ship bound for Washington, N.C. His first impression of the North Carolina coast could have been better. “I should not like to teach in that town,” he later wrote, “everything looked so untidy and neglected. Dead animals were to be seen in the travelled streets.”

All the Fair Faced Pretty Boys

A memory. I am remembering a day at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Mass. The Society holds one of the great collections of early American manuscripts and artifacts, everything from John Quincy Adams’ diary to Paul Revere’s pistol. I was there to look at less famous relics, but ones just as exciting to me: letters and diaries written by Union soldiers that served in New Bern, N.C. during the American Civil War.

The Lynching of Jerome Whitfield

I recently found this description of the 1921 lynching of an African American tenant farmer in Jones County, N.C.: Jones County is quiet today, following the lynching Sunday at noon of Jerome Whitfield, colored, who assaulted a young white woman Saturday afternoon…. News received from citizens of Jones county… was to the effect that between 1000 and 1500 men took part in the proceedings….

Looking for James E. O’Hara at the University of Chicago

While I was in Chicago, I also made a quick trip to the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center. I had never been to the city before, so just getting to the university was an adventure. As I rode the CTA rail line downtown, I marveled at the diversity of the neighborhoods through which I was passing and the exuberant beauty of the murals and graffiti that I could see from my seat on the train. I changed onto a bus downtown that carried me south along the shores of Lake Michigan. After a long ride, I got off at Hyde Park, the historic neighborhood on the South Side that has been home to so many great Americans, including Mahalia Jackson, Muhammad Ali and President Obama.

After the Fire: An African American Community Explores its History

A decade ago, I interviewed an African American woman named Miss Dorcas Carter in New Bern, North Carolina. Born in 1913, Miss Carter grew up to teach in the city’s African American schools for more than 40 years. Renowned for her exceptionally high standards for intellectual achievement and personal character, she was 88 years old when I visited her to learn more about the great New Bern fire of 1922. That fire reduced some of the most prosperous black neighborhoods in the American South to ashes and left nearly 3,000 people homeless, including Miss Carter and her family. By the time that I visited her, she was one of the last living witnesses to the fire.